Updated: Aug 31, 2020
Economically speaking, there are three fundamental ways of engaging in the world: Taking, Trading, and Giving.
And we've each done them all.
We’ve all taken something simply because we wanted it.
"That toy is mine," we said as a child. "That last piece of cake is mine," we’ve insisted as adults.
And we’ve all traded something we've had for something someone else possesses.
"Wanna trade shifts?" we've asked our coworkers. "I'll give you this Charizard for a Pikachu," we've said on the playground.
We’ve all given something of value to someone else as a gift.
"Happy birthday!" we've sung. "I picked this out just for you."
Taking, Trading, and Giving. We’ve all engaged in each of these practices.
And, if you’ve spent any time in church, you know that Jesus has something to say about taking. (Simply put, He's not a fan.) And you know that Jesus has something to say about giving. (Indeed, He told his followers "Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.") But did you also know that Jesus also has something to say about trading?
Something important. Something that changes everything.
But first, we need a bit of a history lesson.
Did you know that in the first century, access to resources, positions of influence or power, or social services and goods was all made available through an economic system we’ve come to call "patronage".
And here’s how the system worked:
In the patronage system, a person with resources or status was called a “patron”. Patrons were powerful. And those without resources and without power - those who might be seeking seeking access to goods or services or loans or leadership - were called “clients”. Clients needed help.
So a client would come to a patron, and the client would say: “Oh great and mighty so and so, you’re so smart, and so kind, and so important. You are the greatest, most beautiful person I’ve ever met. You look perpetually 21. You can do no wrong. Just being in your presence is a privilege. Oh great and mighty so and so, turn your favor on me, and lend me some money so I can pay off my many debts. Give me a position of power in our civic government. Let me use a small plot of the land you own to farm food for my family. Turn your favor on me, and in return I pledge you my loyalty and my allegiance. I promise to speak well of you to everyone I meet. Give me what I ask, and I’ll owe you. My labor, my talents, my expertise - they will be yours to call upon when you ask."
Patronage is built on relational debts.
Patronage operates by creating a relationship of obligation between two people - a person who has, and a person who has not.
A patron agrees to give a client what the client needs. And the client agrees to be available to patron, to promote the patron’s fame, to defend the patron’s reputation, to use whatever skills or clout they might have for the good of the patron.
This is why Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, insisted that patronage, the practice of exchanging personal favors, constituted, “the chief bond of human society”. Seneca said patronage was the glue that held it all together. Seneca said trading favors is how the world works best.
And any first century reader of the Acts narrative, any person who lived while Jesus walked on earth or while Luke wrote the history of the early church, anyone who was alive in the Roman Empire in 40AD, would have believed that too.
They would have believed that trading favors, that giving gifts and receiving gifts through relationships of obligation, that trading access to power and access to wealth in a web of interpersonal connections - was the way the world worked best.
That would have been what they were taught their entire lives.
It would have been immediately obvious to them.
And, it’s not too difficult to understand why. Let’s be honest: A patronage system can be a remarkably effective way of distributing resources in a pre-technological age? In a world before VISA or AMEX, patronage allowed individuals with no access to resources to receive access to resources by leveraging their labor or leveraging their commitment and pledging it to a patron.
Patronage opened doors even as it created debts.
It allowed someone who might have learned how to build a solid table or bake tasty bread or to paint a beautiful landscape to pledge that skill to a patron in order to get what they need.
But patronage has its limits.
There’s a fundamental problem with the patronage system.
And the problem is this: If your world is built around trading favors, what happens when you have nothing to trade? And what happens if you’ve fallen out of favor?
If access to goods and resources and assistance in your society is dependent upon your ability to offer something of value to someone in power, what happens if you’ve got nothing to give? What happens if you’ve got little to offer?
What happens if you’re injured? Or addicted? Or bankrupt? What happens if you’ve made some mistakes in the past and your reputation is shot? What happens if you're not the right gender? Or not the right color? Or if you didn’t come from the right family?
You see, the problem with the patronage system is that it had no true way to help the truly down and out.
Because patronage is built on the trading of favors. So it works well, so long as you’ve got something to offer.
And that reality - the fact that patronage could leave some of society's most vulnerable without help - was not just an accidental outcome resulting from mismanagement or misuse of the system. It was a practice mandated by by those who defined the system.
Indeed, Isocrates (the ancient Greek rhetorician) said:
"Bestow your favors on the good; for a goodly treasure is a store of gratitude laid up in the heart of an honest man. If you benefit bad men, you will have the same reward as those who feed stray dogs; for these snarl alike at those who give them food and at the passing stranger; and just so base men wrong alike those who help them and those who harm them."
Isocrates - like all the great thinkers of his time - insisted that any patron ought to scrutinize the recipient of their giving. He said any wise giver ought to assess if the person in need that they’re encountering is worthy of their help.
Isocrates - like all the prevailing teachers and philosophers of the ancient world - said that no trade should be wasted. And therefore that help should not be wasted on those who were too hurt to express gratitude, or on those who’d been so wounded by the world that they’d become defensive and ungrateful.
And this was the unquestioned assumption of any thinking person in the first century.
So when another first century teacher emerged, a teacher who challenged the existing cultural authorities, everyone took notice. Because he said that generosity should be dispensed more freely. He said that his followers ought to give generously without thought of repayment. He said:
“When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors—for they will invite you back, and in this way you will be paid for what you did. When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; and you will be blessed, because they are not able to pay you back. For God will repay you at the resurrection of the just.”
Jesus, in contrast to all the prevailing thinking of his time, taught that trading favors is not the path to blessing. Jesus said His followers should give freely - even to those who might never be able to pay them back.
And Jesus's first followers took this teaching to heart. Indeed, Luke documents the practices of the early church, saying:
"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need."
Jesus said that his followers shouldn’t get caught up in the system of trading favors that dominated their cultural landscape. Jesus insisted that those who follow him ought to give freely without thought of repayment.
That's because Jesus knew that God is a giver. God is a giver.
He’s not a taker. And He’s not a trader. He’s a giver. He’s a giver that’s so generous that He gave His own Son, to give humanity what we could never obtain for ourselves. He gave Himself so that we might have His life - abundant life, eternal life. He’s generous.
He’s a giver. He gives us daily breath. He gives us big joys and small joys. He gives us friends and encouragement in hard times and tough moments. God is a giver.
And I forget that. When I’m discouraged, I see Him as a taker looking to steal my joy.
And when I’m desperate, I approach Him as a trader, attempting to barter obedience for blessing.
But God is a giver.
He always has been and always will be.
And He wants His people to be like Him. He wants his church to resemble His generosity.